Massive earthquake relief effort begins as the scope of the tragedy becomes clear
As the initial shock of Saturday night’s earthquake gives way to the grim reality of human and property losses, Ecuador confronts the biggest reconstruction project in its history.
Before that begins, however, comes the search and rescue and search and recovery efforts for hundreds, possibly thousands, of people buried under the rubble. That process began on Sunday, as heavy machinery began clearing the debris of collapsed structures. More often however, it was family members, friends and neighbors pulling concrete, wood, and steel from piles of wreckage in a frantic search for survivors.
To date, the powerful 7.8 earthquake that struck just before 7 p.m. Saturday, has been followed by more than 230 aftershocks, some registering 5.6 and 5.5 on the Richter Scale. As of early Monday, the death toll officially stands at 350, with 2,118 injured but, as one rescue worker said, the numbers are meaningless at this point. “We have just begun our work,” she said. “There will be thousands more.”
President Rafael Correa returned from Rome Sunday and toured some of the damage zone. He didn’t respond to most questions from reporters but asked an aid, “Where do we start?”
As more news came in from affected communities, the scale of the devastation became more evident Sunday. Among the towns suffering severe damage are Pedernales, San Clemente, Manta, Bahia de Caraquez, Esmeraldas, Muisne, Portoviejo, and Babahoyo. As rescue workers and television and newspaper reporters reach other communities, more bad news comes in.
An article posted on the El Universo newspaper website Sunday afternoon, added Jama to the list of stricken communities. It reported that most of the town was destroyed, with a known death toll of 12 but with dozens more trapped in the ruins, some in five hotels flattened by the quake. The 23,000 residents are without water, electricity or sewers. The highway leading into town has meter-wide cracks. Late in the afternoon, soldiers and police arrived to assist with rescue efforts and provide law enforcement.
Officials say that foreigners are among the dead, although so far only two Canadians have been identified. Throughout the affected areas, dozens of tourist hotels have been flattened with hundreds reportedly inside.
The thousands of soldiers and police ordered to the scene, along with volunteer relief agency workers and heavy equipment, are facing the daunting challenge of simply getting there. Highways have been destroyed or heavily damaged. Bridges have been destroyed. Some villages can only be reached by off-road vehicles or by foot.
Across Ecuador, thousands of volunteers left Sunday for the north coast. In Cuenca, 50 medical workers boarded buses for Manta, with more leaving today. The government sent out a message through television stations asking that all volunteers coming to the earthquake zone be part of approved relief organizations. “Do not come alone. We appreciate your interest in helping but you must be associated with a larger group,” said a Ministry of Health spokesman.
Most large stores across the country are collecting food, water, and clothing for victims. In Cuenca, there are collection stations near the entrances of the city’s Supermaxi grocery stores.
Dozens of other organizations are taking cash contributions for disaster relief (see article).
On Sunday morning, Vice President Jorge Glas offered his view of the work ahead. “It is massive, it’s heartbreaking, and it will be very difficult. This is work that will be with us for many months, probably for many years.”